Jeter’s hit-by-pitch – actually it was a missed-by-pitch – seemed to light a match in an already smoldering rivalry between the two best teams in baseball Wednesday night. The chain reaction was swift: an argument, an ejection, a go-ahead New York Yankees home run, a go-ahead Tampa Bay Rays home run, and then the kind of angry ninth-inning noise usually reserved for ballparks in colder climates. By the time the game ended in a 4-3 Rays victory and Jeter admitted “acting,” the Rays were back in first and the table was set for more bitterness in the Bronx.
In other words: It’s on.
Jeter will take heat for this one. He spun away from an inside pitch from Rays reliever Chad Qualls(notes) in the seventh with nobody on and the Yankees down a run. The trainer ran out and Jeter clutched his forearm like a veterinarian cradles a frail dove. Problem: The pitch hit the bat knob and nothing else. Replays proved it, but all Rays manager Joe Maddon needed to see was the ball screaming into the infield as if Jeter’s wrist was made of titanium steel.
“Oh my god,” Maddon said after the game, “I thought it would be a line drive into right field.” Maddon knew the ball hit the bat, but he wanted to hear an umpire tell him the ball hit Jeter.
“Nobody knew that,” he said, “but everyone knew it hit the bat.” All he heard from the umpires, he said, was “That was the call that was made.” (Catcher John Jaso(notes) diplomatically offered: “I heard … not flesh.”)
Maddon stayed out for a while, and Jeter stood on first and stopped tending to his wrist. “There was some vibration,” Jeter said. “And acting. My job is to get on base.”
If Alex Rodriguez(notes) pulled such a move, he’d be skewered. And Jaso timidly muttered, “I would never do that.” But Maddon praised Jeter for his “performance,” wished his own players would pull off something similar, and suggested that “There are several thespians throughout major league baseball.”
The Rays fans, however, were ready to throw tomatoes, and the energy in a normally serene ballpark ratcheted up a few kilowatts – especially after Curtis Granderson(notes) brought Jeter home with a go-ahead two-run homer. The crowd’s response, roughly translated: “This Means War.”
Rays DH Dan Johnson(notes) basically felt the same way. “That does light a fire,” he said. So Johnson, who had hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, belted another one in the bottom of the inning, and the Rays led for good. (Johnson, with fewer than 100 major league at-bats since 2007, knocked in all four Rays runs. He returned to the clubhouse to find Maddon sitting on the couch, alone, watching the events unfold on a flat-screen.)
When Jeter batted again in the ninth – having given up all premise of pain – fans blasted him. Here was one of the most celebrated people in the Tampa area treated like a babyface wrestler turned bad. Jeter struck out swinging, and the Trop boomed.
It was a perfect ending to a hugely entertaining series. All three games were decided by one run. Two teams that have spent nearly two months within two games of each other traded first place three times. There were three unlikely heroes – the Rays’ Reid Brignac(notes) on Monday, the Yankees’ Greg Golson(notes) on Tuesday and Johnson on Wednesday. There was an extra-inning walk-off homer and an extra-inning walk-off putout at third. (A tag-off? A throw-off? A slide-off?) There were even two nifty plays by the Rays’ right field ballboy. And Derek Jeter turned evil.
Well, at least in some eyes.
But more importantly, there was the perfect setup for the four games between the teams in the Bronx beginning Monday – and maybe seven after that in the ALCS. The Rays crowd of a tick under 30,000, so lamented for being passive, grew louder and louder almost by the inning, as Monday’s empty seats filled gradually until the place felt bursting by comparison. It was like a mob gathering on a tree-lined street to gawk at a domestic dispute.
“This was about as good as it gets,” Maddon said. “It was incredibly intense. Both sides were into every pitch. It was a lot of fun to participate in.”
It’s only going to get more heated, especially when interesting quotes surface, this courtesy of Yankees starter Phil Hughes(notes): “It’s not quite a rivalry. It’s not the feel of Fenway. The fans pack it in at 25,000. But they’re a good team. They’re not going away, so we’ll have to deal with them.”
They’re going to have to deal with them in only a few days. “It’s a major thing for us,” said Johnson, eyes widening.
The World Series of the 2010 regular season continues with Game 4 on Monday in New York. There may not be any more acting.
But there will be blood.
Freelance writer David Gardner contributed to this article.